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14 January 2012

Subversive Speech: Beyond the Myth of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient Heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
We would fashion from their Lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to make a better world.
So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences, will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died
Is still a dream.
Carl Wendell Hines

The words of Carl Wendell Hines, written after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, apply to Dr. King as well.  "So now that he is safely dead, We... will Teach our children that he was a great man, Knowing that the cause for which he Lived is still a cause And the dream for which he died Is still a dream."

In our shared national memory, we emphasize the utopian and nonviolent aspects of Dr. King's message, and tune out  those  that are critical of American society and politics. This myth of the "dreamer" Dr. King  then made it possible to paint Dr. King as someone who was seen as the "good" counterpart to Malcolm X, whose memory could not be adopted to the American dream.

For this to happen. Dr. King’s public image had to be frozen at the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the occasion of the August 1963 March on Washington.  That Dr. King used an analogy in the same speech in order to illustrate America’s broken promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to “her citizens of color" is left out of the myth.  He stated that the promissory note had come back marked “insufficient funds”.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Much as it was labeled a crime in certain Latin American countries to recite the Magnificat (Mary's song in Luke Chapter 1), to quote the whole speech of Dr. King is subversive in the true sense of that word. To be subversive means to move away from the dominant version of reality toward a sub-version. Subversion is what preaching is all about. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, puts it this way in "The Word Militant" (2007):

We preachers are summoned to get up and utter a sub-version of reality, an alternative version of reality that says another way of life in the world is not only possible, but peculiarly mandated and peculiarly valid.  It is a sub-version because we must fly low, stay under the radar, and hope not to be detected too soon; sub-version, because it does indeed intend to sub-vert the dominant version and to empower the community of sub-versives who are determined to practice their lives accroding to a different way of imaging.

The dominant version of reality among us that we preachers are to subvert, concludes Brueggemann, is a narrative of violence, "all the way from sexual abuse and racial abuse to the strategy of wholesale imprisonment of "deviants" to military macho that passes for policy".  Dr. King's call for agape (what he defined in 1957 as the "understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men") was based on a deep sense that all persons are interrelated, and thus, that all people have the radical obligation of compassion. Beyond barriers of race, nationality, and religion, we must identify ourselves with the poor, the oppressed, the wretched of the earth:

16 We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians. 17 But whoever has the world's possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth. (from 1 John 3)

Now that he is safely dead, it is our job to make sure that the "powers that be" are aware that we know the whole message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and that we will pursue his yet unfulfilled dream. Let us hold them and ourselves accountable for the state of our country, our world and each other. Let us be proud of Dr. King's monument, but let us honor him with our actions, our lives, our sacrifice for the sake of justice. He would not want a statue, he would want us to work for change.

Loving and compassionate God. You hear the audible cries of the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. You also hear the silence of inaction. When we become too comfortable and complacent, disturb our peace with questions. Ask us if we have good religion. Ask us If we love God. Ask us if we love our neighbors in the global village. Ignore our excuses. Ignore our regrets. Then, wait for our honest reply. And lead us to integrity in faith and action. Amen.

1 John 3:16-19

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